According to Nachmanides, the “writing of the Torah was contiguous, without break of words …”[1] but “it seems likely that word division of some kind was also used in the first biblical texts.”[2] The Shapira Manuscripts seem to represent an intermediary stage between the tradition expressed by Nachmanides and the evolution of Hebrew writing found in the paleo-Hebrew scrolls of the Judean Desert.

In 1883, Moses Wilhelm Shapira came to possess sixteen blackened leather strips of varying lengths. The strips contained forty-two columns of text, written in ancient Paleo-Hebrew letterforms similar to those of the Moabite Stone and the Siloam Inscription, but with some noted differences. The forty-two columns of text appeared to represent two nearly complete specimens of the same text, and perhaps a badly decayed minuscule part of a third.

Similar to lapidary examples known at the time, interpuncts were used to divide the otherwise continuous text, at times as indicators of the end of a verse, and in one section after nearly every word, with two notable exceptions.

The nineteenth century experts who examined the manuscript strips commented upon the separation of words based upon what they knew at the time. Christian David Ginsburg made the following remarks in an article appearing in The Athenæum on 11 August 1883:[3]

  • In the Decalogue portion the words are not only divided, but there is a point after every word, as in the Moabite Stone.
  • There is not only no stop after the particles את and לא, but these two expressions are closely connected with the respective words to which they belong, so as to form one expression.

The next week, in an article appearing in The Athenæum on 18 August 1883,[4] Ginsburg commented on this feature of the manuscript strips again, saying, “I have only to remark: –

  • That the writing, with the exception of the Decalogue, is continuous, and that the division of it into separate words is my own.
  • The points after certain sentences … which are a kind of versicular division, are in the MS.
  • In the original, when a word could not be got into the line it is divided, and part of it stands at the end of the line and the other part begins the next line, as is the case in the inscription on the Moabite Stone.

Hermann Guthe also mentioned these textual features of the leather strips, namely the use of interpuncts and word division between lines.

“The scriptio continua is not infrequently interrupted by interpuncts. Their use in the manuscript itself, however, is a varying one.  In the first and last portion, one encounters the points mostly at such places where we also would put a larger punctuation sign. There they mark units of meaning, though they appear, a few times, to not stand at the right place. In the text of the Decalogue, however (Fragment E, Column b, c, and d), the individual words are separated by the points, admittedly with two notable exceptions: between the negative particle לא and the verb, the point regularly is missing, as well as between the particle את and the following noun. The negation and its verb, the emphatic particle את and its noun, then, are to be viewed as an especially close phrase, equal to one word.  This writing confronts the reader as an original feature, it indeed surprised me not a little. For it coincides with the Hebrew language usage, which does not tolerate the separation of the negation from the verb and connects the particle את so closely with the following noun that its own meaning has been completely lost. The lack of interpuncts corresponds somewhat with the application of the lineola מקף in our Bible edition, insofar as the close connection of multiple words shall also be emphasized by it. This occurs, though, in a much broader circumstance, and not so regularly as the discussed related appearances in our manuscript.

We now know the usage of the interpuncts for Hebrew and the related languages only from inscriptions. What immediately concerns the Mesha Stele, thus leaves the copy published by Th. Nöldeke[5] in doubt as to whether after every word stood a point; perhaps the original is in this regard no longer fully distinct. Though I note that there consistently occurs a point after את, besides one exception in Line 11. The negation לא does not altogether occur there. The Siloam inscription has a point after every word;[6] though unfortunately את and לא do not occur in it. Phoenician inscriptions fluctuate between complete scriptio continua and the usage of interpuncts.[7] I find, thus, no model for the way in which, in our manuscript, the words of the Decalogue are separated. It should apparently serve to allow this part of Moses’ speech to especially stand out, and by distinguishing every individual word, to ensure the survival of it against any changes. Or — do we have a copy of the original, “written” by God Himself on the stone tablets, before our eyes?? Unfortunately, we must now recognize our complete ignorance as to whether, in ancient times, a difference in the setting of interpuncts while writing on leather or on a stone tablet was customary, and entirely as to whether the Ten Commandments were ever in Jerusalem in this form on stone tablets. Thus, this peculiarity of the manuscript does not suit a fruitful examination. But it is interesting!” [8]

As noted by Guthe, nineteenth century scholars only knew of the use of interpuncts from lapidary examples such as the Moabite Stone, the Siloam Inscription, etc. He conceded ignorance as to whether this practice was employed in the writing of scrolls.

The ignorance prevalent among nineteenth century scholars was simply due to the fact that Shapira’s manuscripts were the first examples of potentially ancient leather manuscripts since their examination took place more than six decades before the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

In 1965, Helen Jefferson noted the use of dots (interpuncts) in Shapira’s manuscript strips. She said, “Another peculiarity of the Shapira Decalogue is that dots are used as word dividers … The use of dots or short slanting lines as word dividers is old. They are found in the Mesha stone, the Siloam inscription, the Lachish letters, fragments of Leviticus in Paleo-Hebrew script from Qumran Cave 1 among others. … It has been suggested that the forger used these word dividers in the Shapira because he was imitating the Mesha stone. … If the Shapira was not forged, the writer may have used word dividers because they were often used in inscriptions on stone and there is the tradition that the Decalogue was originally carved on stone.”[9]

The use of interpuncts as word dividers, as well as the breaking of a word between two lines of text are described as typical features among the Qumran scrolls written in Paleo Hebrew. Eugene Ulrich notes, “It was customary, in manuscripts inscribed in the paleo-Hebrew script, as also often in inscriptions in the Phoenician script, to use dots or small vertical or diagonal strokes to serve as word dividers. Similarly, one finds occasionally that a word at the end of a line is divided and the second part of the word starts the next line. Neither the word-division dots nor the divisions of words between lines is normally found in biblical scrolls in the Jewish script.”[10] In describing 4QpaleoGenm, he noted, “As was customary in scrolls inscribed with the paleo-Hebrew script, the scribe used a dot to divide between words and probably divided words between lines.”[11] In his discussion of 4QpaleoExodm, he said, “The scribe used dots for word division, and occasionally split words at the end of a line.”[12] Of 4QpaleoDeutr he observed, “The scribe occasionally split words at the end of lines,” but also noted as an unusual characteristic of this scroll that, “its scribe did not use dots for word division as all other scribes writing paleo-Hebrew did, but separated words only by leaving a space,” further adding, “With respect to the lack of dots for word division, one should bear in mind that some inscriptions on the Phoenician script also did not use word dividers.”[13] Of 4QpaleoDeuts, Ulrich reports, “Word dividers are used regularly, and the left marginal rule is so strictly followed that the word at the end of each of the three extant lines is divided.”[14]

Ulrich also noted of 4QpaleoJobc that, “the dots customary for word division in paleo-Hebrew manuscripts were used. No instances are preserved where a word is split between lines, but the observation is meaningless, since the fragments are from a poetic passage written stichometrically, and the scribe may well have split words in the narrative sections.”[15]

Emanuel Tov says that, “The overwhelming majority of the Judean Desert texts … use one of two systems for separating words in Hebrew and Aramaic, employing either word-dividers of some kind (mainly dots) in texts written in the paleo-Hebrew script.”[16] He also says that “dots or small oblique strokes were used in almost all biblical paleo-Hebrew Qumran scrolls.”[17] Tov tells us that, “Words are often broken up at the end of a line (split between lines) in the early Hebrew script, and likewise in biblical scrolls written in the paleo-Hebrew script … This breaking up of words was a practice that “was not used in texts written in the square script and was forbidden by Sof. 2.1.”[18] He also notes in another place that, “words were split between lines, as in inscriptions written in the early Hebrew script, and in biblical scrolls written in the paleo-Hebrew script apparently due to considerations of space.”[19]

Shapira’s manuscript strips were consistent with the practices now known to us from paleo-Hebrew manuscripts from Qumran. They contained word dividers in the form of dots, or interpuncts, and at times split words between lines. Prior to Shapira’s manuscript, these features were only known from lapidary examples. These characteristics apply only to manuscripts written in paleo-Hebrew, and in the case of breaking words between lines, the practice was later forbidden by Jewish law.

Shapira’s manuscript strips seem to represent an intermediary stage between the tradition of scriptio continua as reported by Nachmanides and the later stage of word division as evidenced in paleo-Hebrew manuscripts from Qumran. The manuscript employed interpuncts to mark units of meaning (verses), but in its unique version of the Ten Words it employed it after every word excluding את and לא. This was likely to represent on leather what was originally written on stone.

The nineteenth century scholars believed that these manuscript strips were forgeries seeking to mimic known lapidary examples, but the discoveries of the Judean Desert seem to suggest that they were wrong.

[1] Charles Chavel, Ramban (Nachmanides): Commentary on the Torah. (New York: Shiloh Publishing House, Inc., 1971), 14-15.

[2] Emanuel Tov, Textual Criticism of the Hebrew Bible (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2012), 196. See also, Alan Millard, “‘Scriptio Continua’ in Early Hebrew: Ancient Practice or Modern Surmise?” Journal of Semitic Studies (1970), 2-15.

[3] “The Shapira MS of Deuteronomy,” The Athenæum, No 2911, 11 August 1883, 178.

[4] “The Shapira MS of Deuteronomy,” The Athenæum, No 2912, 18 August 1883, 206.

[5] (Note from Guthe) Th.  Nöldeke, Die Inschrift des Königs Mesa von Moab. Kiel 1870.

[6] (Note from Guthe) Cf. my essay: Die Siloahinschrift in ZDMG XXXVI, p. 725 ff.

[7] (Note from Guthe) S. the “Sprachproben” in Dr. P. Schroeder, Die phönicische Sprache. Halle 1869.

[8] Hermann Guthe, Fragmente einer Lederhandscrift Enthaltend Mose’s Letzte Rede an Die Kinder Israel (Leipzig: Druck und Verlag von Breitkopf & Härtel, 1883), 69-71. I made use of the translation of Mitchell Golde, the full text of which will be published in the fall of 2021.

[9] Helen Jefferson, “The Shapira Manuscript and the Qumran Scrolls,” Revue De Qumran, Vol. 6, No. 3 (23) (FÉVRIER 1968), 393-4.

[10] Eugene Ulrich, The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Origins of the Bible (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1999), 125-6.

[11] Ibid, 130.

[12] Ibid, 133.

[13] Ibid, 136. See also his summary on page 141 where he compares the paleo-Hebrew manuscripts of Cave 4.

[14] Ibid, 138-9.

[15] Ibid, 140

[16] Tov, Textual Criticism, 196.

[17] Ibid, 196 n 8.

[18] Ibid, 205.

[19] Ibid, 219